THE BLOG
07/10/2013 10:56 am ET | Updated Sep 09, 2013

Barack Obama and the $300 Million War on HBCUs

Four months after announcing his candidacy for president, then-Senator Barack Obama stood before a captive audience of clergy at Hampton University, serving as a keynote speaker at the college's 2007 annual Ministers' Conference. He trailed party favorite Hillary Rodham Clinton by more than 15 points in many polls, with many women and African-Americans unfamiliar with the refrain of "Change" that led to Obama's historic ascendance to the nation's highest office.

His speech was on the "quiet riots" of disadvantaged communities.

They happen when a sense of disconnect settles in and hope dissipates. Despair takes hold and young people all across this country look at the way the world is and believe that things are never going to get any better. You tell yourself, my school will always be second rate. You tell yourself, there will never be a good job waiting for me to excel at. You tell yourself, I will never be able to afford a place that I can be proud of and call my home. That despair quietly simmers and makes it impossible to build strong communities and neighborhoods. And then one afternoon a jury says, "Not guilty" -- or a hurricane hits New Orleans -- and that despair is revealed for the world to see.

Six years and two elections later, presidents and advocates at historically black colleges and universities are quietly expressing outrage with the Obama administration over a perceived lack of interest and engagement toward the institutions. Decreases in federal grant funding to HBCUs and changes in the Parent PLUS Loan Program have cost black colleges more than $300 million in the last two years, one of the worst stretches in history for public HBCU support.

At issue, policies and appointments to key positions of advocacy for black colleges. And at the center of all discussion on the weakened relationship between the White House and historically black colleges, White House Initiative Director and current Morehouse College President John Silvanus Wilson.

The PLUS Loan crisis, which began in earnest in October 2011, was high on the agenda a year later at the September 2012 meeting of the President's Board of Advisors on Historically Black Colleges and Universities in Washington, D.C.  The minutes of that meeting show growing concern from Hampton University President and Board Chair William Harvey and Spelman College President Beverly Daniel Tatum, about the impact of the loan changes -- changes that Secretary Education Secretary Arne Duncan has spent the better part of 2013 explaining away to black communities and HBCU audiences.

In that meeting, Dr. Wilson touted that HBCUs had seen increased federal funding, echoing statements he had been making in the media since 2011. But those statements didn't match internal numbers. According to documents provided by the Department of Education to the HBCU Digest, total grants from the Department of Education dropped from more than $742 million in 2010 to $680 million in 2012.

Grants and research awards from federal agencies to HBCUs for S.T.E.M. development decreased from $661 million in 2010 to $573 million in 2011. According to the WHI-HBCU 2009 annual report, the last produced by the office which, under Dr. Wilson's leadership, never produced an annual report, HBCUs received just under $5 billion from federal agencies, about 2 percent of a total $175 billion awarded to institutions of higher education throughout the nation.

In a recent article in the Washington Post, Department of Education leadership suggested that the loan changes were not executive mandates, but rather, changes enacted by lower-ranking officials which went unchecked by policy makers in the Department and within the White House Initiative on HBCUs.

Acting Deputy Education Secretary Jim Shelton said the action was taken by "middle management" officials in an effort to fix what they saw as "a glitch in the system." He said that top officials did not review the decision before it was implemented, but that the department stood by it as consistent with laws and regulations.

In a July 4 letter to President Obama signed by National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education President Lezli Baskerville and Thurgood Marshall College Fund President and CEO Johnny Taylor, the groups outlined concerns with a July 3 communication from Department of Education Under Secretary Martha Kanter to HBCU presidents and advocates noting that the White House Initiative on HBCUs would be led by an interim director, Joel Harrell. Kanter's message came weeks after a May 22 meeting between NAFEO and TMCF leadership and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, in which Duncan assured the advocates that a permanent director would be chosen in the "next two weeks." From the joint NAFEO-TMCF letter:

"...while we have engaged in good faith and played by the rules established by the Secretary, we are concerned that the rules of engagement, like those for the Parent Plus Loan, shifted without our being provided notice or an opportunity to be heard. This gives us pause."

In the eyes of many, Dr. Wilson was either complicit in the Dept of Ed's PLUS Loan adjustments and reductions in federal agency grants, or never saw them coming. And in either scenario, his legacy with the Initiative is not one of advocacy in the nation's highest seat of lobbying for black colleges, but as an adversary to sustainable progress.

Even while speaking of building HBCU "cathedrals," traces of legitimate advocacy and progress for HBCUs were and remain difficult to find beyond spot examples of success in S.T.E.M. and international engagement -- projects that Wilson himself did not personally develop, but folded into his portfolio of achievements as WHI-HBCU director.

Some black college experts have suggested that closer monitoring and reporting to the president may be the only system by which HBCUs can receive proper advocacy.

"One of the things we'd like to see is for the White House Initiative on HBCUs to have a direct report to the president, either by the director of the occupying a deputy secretary position, or by requiring federal agencies to report on their engagement and grant awarding to black colleges to that position," says Earl S. Richardson, President Emeritus of Morgan State University in Baltimore.

Dr. Richardson also says that President Obama must specifically engage with the federal Office of Civil Rights to examine and possibly investigate the cooperation of states in dismantling segregated systems and disparate cultures of funding between historically black colleges and predominantly white colleges.

"These are just a few ways, but among the most critical to reverse the devastating impact which current policy changes have caused at HBCUs nationwide. To avoid this kind of repair, I think, would signal to many in the community that the White House doesn't value historically black colleges. When we look at the lack of leadership in the Initiative, and the missteps which have brought us to this point, I think that black institutions find themselves in a perilous position, unlike any other we've ever seen."

By policy and appointment, President Obama has demonstrated, at best, a low regard for historically black colleges and universities. His office must serve as a bully pulpit on improvement for African-American communities through the institutions best designed to serve them through education, research and outreach. Now is the time for the gap to be closed and for the words of his promise to HBCUs in September 2010 to hold true for black Americans and black colleges nationwide.

We also want to keep strengthening HBCUs, which is why we're investing $850 million in these institutions over the next 10 years.  And as I said in February, strengthening your institutions isn't just a task for our advisory board or for the Department of Education; it's a job for the entire federal government.  And I expect all agencies to support this mission. 

Now, none of this is going to be easy.  I know -- I'm sure you know that.  As leaders of these institutions, you are up against enormous challenges, especially during an economic crisis like the one that we are going through.  But we all have to try. We have to try.  We have to remain determined.  We have to persevere.